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More Cities Consider Encrypting Police Radio Scanners

Multiple U.S. cities are considering or have already encrypted police radio signals to some degree, curtailing popular listening to the scanners, the New York Times reports. Indianapolis, where the police channel is among the most listened to in the U.S., is one of several cities considering decreasing access to the real-time communication between dispatchers and emergency medical workers by encrypting those conversations. Encryption encodes a radio signal in a way that makes it accessible only to authorized users. Denver, San Francisco, San Diego County, Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Sioux Falls are among the jurisdictions that have already encrypted radio signals to some degree. Minneapolis, whose police department has faced a lot of pressure to be more transparent and accountable, intends to adopt encryption next year.

Law enforcement officials say they long saw value in allowing a small number of civilians to hear their communications. As the numbers of listeners soared in a nation where true-crime shows and reality television are wildly popular, the risks of allowing unfettered access concerned public safety officials. Press freedom groups and other organizations that advocate for government transparency have expressed alarm at the trend toward encryption. Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology said police departments should find ways to mitigate privacy concerns without entirely cutting off access to these radio channels. Adam Scott Wandt, a professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he sees value in allowing journalists to monitor police radios to cover the news. He said he was troubled by how many people now routinely listen in as the police respond to calls about domestic violence, sexual assaults, suicide attempts and pursuits of suspects.


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